Ian McNamara

Negative expectations

And their role in language learning

In my role as English language guru & agony aunt, I'm often asked "Do you reply to all your emails?" "Of course I do, but if you don't receive one then it's probably got lost in cyberspace", I tell the gullible enquirers.

Most days, after deleting scholarly correspondence asking for my opinion on L1 interference in the learning process or expressing concerns regarding the classroom environment, and quickly glancing at the latest offers to make me a millionaire or enhance various parts of my anatomy, there are always one or two missives I feel I should reply to.

This week's column consists of a cry for help and my reply to the despairing writer.

Dear Ian,

I recently attended a teachers' conference and heard two outstanding speakers.

The first speaker said we need to have high expectations for all students. She said we must provide our lower level students with the same inspiring curriculum as we give to our more able and more willing students. When we do this, these low students will rise to our level of expectations. I was so motivated by this speaker that I wanted to start proactive drama and playwriting classes for all my M.1 students.

The second speaker said that students learn best when they're succeeding. He said students should succeed 90 percent of the time. Thus, their self-esteem will rise and they will have a good attitude toward learning. I was so enthused by this that I decided to revise my M.1 curriculum down to P.3 level so most of the class can succeed.

Now, I'm not sure what to do. If I follow the first speaker's advice I'm sure a high percentage will fail their exams but conversely they should enjoy the class. If I follow the second speakers advice I'm sure the majority will pass but is that the point of being a teacher?

Dear Bewildered,

You have to decide what's important in your role as an educator. Is passing exams the be all and end all or should a student's all round abilities be taken into account when dishing out the grades?

I get nothing but praise, and the odd ‘Thank you' gift, from the parents of my students. You mention a 90% success rate will enhance students' self-confidence. Just think what a 100% pass rate will do to boost their self esteem. I feel that every student in every class I teach should receive Grade 4.

Recollecting my first days at St Judas', I too was young and idealistic. I wanted to take on the world, to fight the system and make every class as good as those laid on for the benefit of government inspectors and visiting dignitaries.

However in the hours and days that followed my initial foray into frontline teaching I realised that I had to make a decision. Do I stay and wage a one-man war against multiple choice mania or do I sell my soul and my principles in return for the easy life?

After 4 days of mental turmoil I did what any career minded teacher would do and forgot all the nonsense I was taught at university. Now I occasionally look back and wonder if I made the right decision but, as I glance at my new Tag Heuer - an early birthday present from a grateful parent - I know I made the right choice.

In my experience exams aren't designed to measure understanding but to merely indicate the level of anal retentiveness in the growing mind. The majority of students have better things to fill their minds with. Why not test them on the cheat codes for Counterstrike, for example?

I allow my students to demonstrate their lack of understanding in more creative ways. To my mind any child that can produce a decent Christmas card or has the presence of mind to download all his homework assignments from the Internet is showing skills that formal exams cannot measure.

I empower my charges to take control of their own destiny. Providing they turn up for class at roughly the right time with some form of writing implement and scraps of paper on which to write or, more likely use to practice their ‘Go' strategies on then they have fulfilled their side of the bargain.

Of course, the teacher must keep their side of the deal. Therefore, students are allowed to use classroom time to freely explore their creative boundaries without feeling it necessary to be constrained by the English language. We have to emulate real life and, in reality, these kids won't be utilizing very much English when they enter the workforce, aside from the occasional key phrase such as "Big Mac 2 minutes" or "Next station Saladaeng".

A great philosopher once said "Positive expectations yield negative results" keep that in mind and I'm sure all your worries will disappear.



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